We often hear it said that modern farming is efficient and results in low cost food on our table but how true is that? I would contend that there is an awful lot wrong with our food production and distribution systems in the west and the much vaunted efficiency is far from being the true case at least in some sectors.
I’d like to discuss one sector of the farming industry, poultry production.
Recently I was going through a number of books on keeping poultry from the 1850s to just after the Great War (WW1), extracting articles and illustrations for my poultry keeping website. Some of the old illustrations are works of art in their own right and deserve a wide audience.
I came across a number of model poultry farm plans from around 1910 produced by US Universities as a guide for agricultural students and prospective farmers. Contrasting those with modern agricultural business models is what has led me to my conclusion that things have gone very wrong.
These model poultry enterprises were based on 10 acre farms which were expected to be able to provide a decent living for a family. Contrast that with a the size of a modern farm. In fact nowadays 10 acres doesn’t even qualify as a farm in the eyes of the bureaucrats. Yet in 1912, 10 acres could provide for a family in the USA and probably in the UK.
So in terms of economic productivity for land utilised, it is self-evident that farming has become less efficient.
Specialisation / Diversification
Farmers in the UK have been encouraged to both specialise and to diversify. Usually that means a specialised farm with a few sidelines like tourist cottages, farm shops, ice-cream and yogurt production.
All of the 10 acre plans assumed the poultry enterprise would be part of a mixed unit. Running the birds on pasture under fruit trees or on open pasture with other livestock such as a few cows. The plans also assumed the farmer would be growing much of the feed needed to supplement the pasture feeding hen’s diet.
Contrast that with modern, efficient methods where feeds are completely bought in. Apart from the ‘food miles’ incurred in this, most formulated compound feeds for poultry and livestock contain soya.
Soya is a wonderful bean, very high in protein and other nutrients that also helps the animal make more efficient use of other foods. But, and it’s a massive ‘but’, soya almost exclusively comes from the USA or the new vast mono-culture farms in the Amazon.
The cost in money terms of soya protein is low but the true cost is the destruction of vast areas of the most diverse and valuable ecosystem on the planet. The degradation and forced deportation of indigenous peoples to make way for corporate farms.
The problem with our economic system and measurements is that we make no account of the environmental cost. Our production of cheap food is at the expense of the planet.
100 years ago there were no antibiotics available and no effective treatments for parasitic worms. To prevent disease spreading the birds were given room and kept in separate colonies of 50 to 100 birds. The worm burden was kept down by low density stocking. The free ranging birds were kept at 100 to the acre – not the 1,000 to the acre of our free range standard.
Modern flocks are routinely wormed and prophylactically treated with antibiotics. I find it difficult to argue against worming products, if only on welfare grounds but the routine use of antibiotics is another matter
The routine antibiotic use is causing the development of resistant strains of bacteria and these present a clear and significant risk to human health.
Whilst discussing this article it was suggested to me that I was hankering for a return to peasant farming and viewing the past through rose tinted spectacles. To some extent that is true but those farmers 100 years ago had to have a wide range of skills and I would contend their job provided interest and satisfaction as well as hard work.
The modern poultry farmer is highly trained and skilled but how much real satisfaction is there in processing chickens by the tens of thousands?
100 years ago 20% of the workforce were in agriculture and now it’s less than 1%. That shows we’re more efficient in producing food for labour expended. On the other hand, how many people would prefer to live in the country and work as a peasant rather than sitting in a call centre or operating as a human drone in an Amazon warehouse?
What about the 5.4% of the UK population who are unemployed? How efficient is it to pay (albeit pathetically) people to not work?
Poultry produce the following
The eggs from caged chickens and high-density free-range contain fewer vitamins and less omega-3 than pastured birds with a wide variety of herbs etc. in their diet. I think it’s safe to say the eggs the majority of us eat are not as good as they were 100 years ago.
The meat from barn-raised (barn equals a giant climate controlled shed) or high-density free-range contains more fat than truly free-ranged birds. Once again not as good.
The manure used to be used directly on the farm. Now it may well be processed and sold as chicken pellet manure. It’s good stuff too, but it’s accumulated a processing and transport overhead. At best, not as good environmentally as directly using this valuable product.
It’s very difficult to compare the value of money over time. Should it be based on the proportion of average income? The value of a commodity? Whatever, using some of the comparison web sites available it appears that the price consumers in New York pay for eggs today in real terms is actually more they paid just before WW1.
From my researches it appears that 100 years of progress has resulted in us paying more for inferior poultry meat and eggs in the shop. Meat and eggs that are produced at a high cost to the global environment and high risks to our health whilst demeaning and degrading the workers in the industry.
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1Dave Darby September 14th, 2016
I agree that the criticism about returning to peasant farming doesn’t make sense, a) because it produces more food per acre, b) it’s less enviornmentally-damaging, and c) there are plenty of people who would love to do it. When the Ecological Land Co-op develop a new settlement, there is no shortage of people who would like a smallholding. We can’t know the true number of people who would prefer to have a smallholding, because sweatshop or call centre work, shelf-stacking or flipping burgers is soul-destroying stuff, and I’m pretty sure that those workers don’t see having a smallholding as an option, and don’t have the relevant skills anyway.
I agree that modern farming has become less efficient because it damages nature – reduces biodiversity, erodes soil, removes hedges and other habitats and kills bees. Any short-term gain will be destroyed by long-term degradation of nature. It can’t carry on and it’s just not worth it.
But the fact that small farmers are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet might have more to do with the price of food and the price of land. Food prices have fallen so much in real terms and as a percentage of overall household expenditure, that it has become more difficult for small farmers to make ends meet; they’re being squeezed by big supermarkets pushing down prices for consumers, resulting in bigger farms and more environmental damage. Also, increases in the price of land cuts into small farmers’ incomes more, in terms of rent or mortgage.
2Chris Gander September 14th, 2016
John Seymour – of Self sufiency fame – reckoned it was five acres of decent land for a family of four. There are now technological advances – Aquaponics, vertical growing and Groasis Growboxx, to name a few – that reduce the amount of space required, and also the amount of water required to produce the food. So the limited land available is now able to produce more! Indeed, non productive land can be used as well, for certain items, not for all. Growing for profit has always been a problem for the small producer, and actually requires a rethink, rather than a rework, of the issues involved. storage and energy are two items that spring to mind.
3John Harrison September 14th, 2016
Hi Chris – it’s true the aquaponics etc produce more per square metre but at the cost of buying equipment and that gets us back into the corporate clutches. I’m not so sure that the food produced is as wholesome either – a subject that needs some serious scientific study well beyond me.
Profit is another concept that needs re-thinking too, I agree. The whole food chain from farm to shopper’s basket has been captured by multi-nationals like Wal-mart & Tesco.
The shorter, more localised distribution of 100 years ago cut out a lot of costs leaving more for the producer.
What I am trying to do in the article is to illustrate a general problem by taking a specific example.